Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            We have a very big dog, one who is also pretty smart. This means that there are any number of ways that she can find a way out of being enclosed, although fortunately, she is pretty much a homebody and is not a runner. When we are in New Jersey, whenever I pull into the driveway, she will come out of the house, walk up to the gate, stand up and open it in a matter of course way, and come to the car to greet me. That is fine and really cute. But there are times that I wish she wouldn’t do this sort of thing. When we are traveling and are staying in a motel, and we go down to breakfast in the morning, invariably, within two or three minutes, the dog has let herself out of the room and has come down to join us.

            She, however, cannot get out of just anyplace. She does not seem to like jumping over fences, even relatively low ones, although she is big enough to clear fences over two feet high without a lot of effort. That creates its own problems. A couple of weeks ago, when we were walking in Central Park early in the morning, and she was off the leash, she wandered into an area that was fenced in, but with an opening at the top end. After wandering down the area for a couple of hundred yards, she came to its end, and discovered that there was no way out except by jumping over the fence – which she did not want to do, even though it was only about twenty-four inches high. Let me tell you, when an eighty pound German Shepherd does not want to do something, it is very difficult to convince her to do it.

            I tell you this story because it illustrates a point about this morning’s Gospel lesson. In that lesson, Jesus tells the disciples that he is the gate and that whoever enters by him will be saved, and will go out to find pasture. Moreover, he also declares that he is the shepherd, and the gatekeeper who calls to the sheep, who, upon recognizing his voice come to the gate to go out through it.  This is a parable that, I suspect, may make many people nervous. We get nervous talking about gates and gate-keeping, because we think that it is the sign of a religious faith that is exclusionary; that it has restrictive rules and beliefs that have to be followed in order to get in. We, however, believe, or want to believe that Christianity is inclusive. We expect God to be inclusive. But, I want to suggest, when we think like this we forget a basic fact about fences and gates, namely, that it is fences that keep people out or in, as the case may be. Gates, on the other hand, let people out or in, as is most desirable for them. Without a gate, my dog was stuck inside the fence. Without a gate, we are stuck within our ways, ways that do not always lead to life. What is being offered here is not a matter of keeping anybody out, it is an offer of a way out of the fences we are restricted by and into a place of freedom.

            A way out of what? We are a people who like to think of ourselves as entrepreneurial, and as resourceful. We regularly like to say that we are “thinking outside the box.” Yet, it surely is deeply incoherent to attest to one’s own resourcefulness and originality by quoting one of our age’s most widely-overused clichés. We like to think that we are original and that original thinking will solve our problems. Yet, really it is only the details that vary. The basic ways we think remain the same, and we are stuck within them and we rarely get out of the boxes we have put ourselves in.

            For example, our creative solutions are almost always the same sorts of things – more technology, a change or tweak of policy, creative accounting, negotiating skills. Yet, for all that, we are still stuck within the same old sheep-pen or box that we always have been, and perhaps on some things, even more so. The biggest problems remain. The problems of race that have bedeviled Americans for nearly four hundred years have not gone away. As a people, we are more deeply divided than we have been since the end of the Viet Nam war over forty years ago. We have managed to add a problem of grotesque income inequality and everything that means in a nation of supposed equals and equal opportunity. We are becoming individually more and more isolated as people, even as we number “virtual” friends in the hundreds and thousands and as we ignore and undo the social institutions that bind us together. Truth has become a stranger to us.

            Every one of these problems is a moral issue that affects our very being. None of them can be solved by technology, or by policy. Vision, not policy, is needed to do anything about them. Accounting and negotiating – and negotiating is really just a matter of coming to an agreement on the accounting -- will change nothing on this front, either. The problem is that we are not related to each other in healthy ways, and how we are related to each other is where we need a new way of doing things. So, I would suggest, we do need a way out. We do need a gate, and a shepherd who will show us how to get out of the pen and into the open field. That is what our Lord offers. 

            Now, of course, whether we want to accept the offer of an open gate or door depends, not only upon what it is like in the sheep-pen, on how much we want to get out of the pen, it also depends on what is on the other side of the gate. So, we ask, what are we being led into by going through the gate? It is not difficult to tell. A good share of what Jesus promises in the Gospels says exactly what is on the other side of our fences. There is life abundant, peace, truth, and a community that is not simply a negotiated balance between individual wants, but a community of trust and intimacy, one where no one is alone, and where no joy or sorrow goes unshared. But above all, it is a place where there is full knowledge of God, a knowledge that makes all these other things real and living. The knowledge of God that is on that side is not simply an intellectual knowledge; it is the knowledge of beings who are intimately related to each other.  The benediction that we use in this church to close every meeting goes this way: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us now and always.” That is what is on the other side of the gate. It would seem that it is worth it.

            Here is where we have to stop speaking metaphorically. Simply to talk of freedom as an open field, and needing to go through the gate at some point will degenerate into high-minded but empty platitudes. Now, the promises are real, and they are meant to fulfill life. They are meant to challenge the violent and brute ways we live now. Don’t doubt that for a second. But the door to them has to be real, too. To talk about a door or a gate to freedom and to community has to be a matter of talking about what things we are bid by Christ to do in order to be free, or to have a shared life in community--to have some sense of moral and spiritual unity. The door, to be a real door, has to be a passage way from what we have too often been like to what we shall be; it has to be commensurate with what we are aiming for. For the freedom at which we are aiming is not free or cheap and without effort. Nor is the knowledge of God at which we are aiming gotten by remaining intellectually and spiritually blank slates.

            Let me explain the choice that is at stake. Ethicists distinguish between two kinds of freedom. There is freedom from, which is a freedom that comes by having restraints lifted and taken away. If you are in chains, that is a good freedom to gain. If, however, you just want to be able to do whatever you want to do, it can be a rather nihilistic and irresponsible sort of freedom. It is the sort of freedom most teenagers clamor for. On the other hand, there is a freedom for. Freedom in this case may need to be highly disciplined and orderly. It may demand that we follow good advice diligently. Now, this kind of freedom is surely more work than freedom from things. It requires learning the virtues and skills needed to live freely, to live in peace and harmony with your neighbor and to have the internal freedom that allows you not to have to wrestle continually with your competing inner desires. Without those virtues, we cannot have the sort of life that depends upon cooperation, generosity, honesty, and the like.  With those virtues, however, we can have a good life, one that is free in a much deeper sense than any simplistic freedom from things can give. Learning what it takes to have the freedom for a good life can fulfill life and change it.

            The gate that Jesus offers is that second sort of freedom. It is freedom for, and as such it is not just an open spot in the fence. The gate he offers is a matter of equipping us to be citizens of the kingdom that he promises. In this sense, it is not just an erasure of the bad things with which life is too often plagued. It is not just getting you out of the sheep pen. It is also the entryway into a way of life where the old things no longer dominate life. It is, for example, a life where we learn to take truth seriously, for truth is from God and truth lets us be related to each other in ways that lies don’t. One cannot trust, for example, where there is not truth. It is also a life where we also take each other to be brothers and sisters, children of God. It is a matter of seeking to know the mind and will of God so that we can have the same mind and will ourselves. Learning these things, becoming this way is how we enter into the freedom and fulfillment that is the knowledge of God.

            So, what is at stake in the offer of a gate is a matter of how we are to live. As such, it is a matter of getting us to take on all these virtues. We can’t specialize, or pick and choose what we want from among them. Having only half the skills needed to live well in a community is a matter of not having, at all, the skills that are needed to live well in a community.

            In this regard, there aren’t shortcuts. It is easy to illustrate how that is the case. Shortcuts are what technology promises. But, as so many researchers are discovering, as we develop easier ways of communicating by technology, say, by texting, by Twitter, by Facebook, we are in direct proportion also losing the ability to communicate deeply and with any sort of intimacy with other people. Ironically, whenever we take the easiest way to communicate, we lose depth and any real reason to communicate. This is particularly the case with younger generations for whom this sort of technology has been omnipresent since their birth. Many cannot hold conversations of any length with each other, much less people who are different, such as adults. Their skills of attention are severely compromised. They don’t know how to look each other in the eye; searching discussions and the wisdom they bring are refugees that have fled from their lives. To live well with others, attention, intimacy, time itself are necessary. Those things do not belong to us by nature; they need development and they are the gate to a fulfilled life. Without them, we will forever be fenced in by our own social inadequacies.

            All of that is a lot of work. Or, at least, it would appear to be if it were only up to us. But in giving us a way out of the lives we have been stuck in, by giving a gate to freedom, Christ does not just point out the way. He doesn’t just tell us what to do and then watch us flail around as we try to do it. Christ as the good shepherd also continues to guide us, and to speak to us. Christ is the gate, because to listen to him and to take him seriously is already to develop the new sorts of relations we need for freedom. It is to enter into a new relation that can transform all our other relations. It is to learn, for example, what patience and kindness and desire for the good of others is, because that is how he is with us. It is because he leads us beside still waters, that we will come to know how to be like that ourselves.

            The English poet and priest of the seventeenth century, George Herbert, once said that “living well is the best revenge.” By that he meant, no matter how you have been injured, that the best redress for the injury is to continue to live well--to live as a good person. For to live well is to dissipate the resentment and the bitterness of the bread of contention. It is to win by not competing in deadly, unwinnable, and ultimately pointless games.

            It is said regularly that we live in troubled times. We do. But the way out of them is not to do more of what we have been doing to create the trouble. The way to peace is not to engage in the fights that make for the troubles of our times. There is no winning there. It is, instead, a matter of finding a way out of a life fenced in like that. The way out is to live well. The way out is to enter into the gate that the shepherd directs us to. The way out of life destroying communities is to enter into a way of life that is life-giving and that gives you the virtues that make for life-giving communities. So, listen to the voice of the shepherd. He can show you the way out and the way in, and he will give to all who listen to his voice what they need to restore their souls.